When the History Channel aired the pilot episode of “Swamp People,” I couldn’t resist my curiosity to sit down and watch, despite my affinity for animals. For those of you not aware, Swamp People is a TV series that showcases the legalized hunting season of the American alligator in the state of Louisiana, and the culture surrounding this practice. “Gator hunting” is a tradition dating back as far as 300 years, and many veteran hunters earn the majority of their yearly income within the 30-day window that makes up the open season for these large reptiles. Their success is largely dependent on their experience, the weather, and other elements of the local environment and community, including knowing where large gators dwell, dealing with other hunters, etc. Each hunter is issued a certain number of tags that represent the number of alligators they are licensed to hunt and kill (each tag is to be attached to each dispatched animal). The objective is to “tag out” by the end of the season, with many hunters doing so within the final hours of the season, and some reserving the final tag for the most impressive and most challenging alligator they can locate.
Despite what others may think, I generally do not have a problem with hunting, especially if it is regulated well for the species involved, and (in my opinion anyway), the animal isn’t wasted. What I do have a problem with is when the animal(s) is not killed in a humane manner. I understand sometimes circumstances do fall out of control of the hunter, but I feel it is their responsibility to seek out relatively humane methods of killing the animals they hunt. A reasonably good marksman can end the life of a deer, wild boar in moments with a well-aimed bullet or arrow. However, such methods are not used on the alligator. One could argue that the reptile’s unique anatomy and choice of habitat plays a factor. We’re talking about a beast that is virtually impervious to small firearms on its head, neck and back. This feature makes long-distance kill-shots difficult, especially when the creature is characteristically lying or swimming in the water with only its top portions exposed. Only a small spot between the eyes is vulnerable to gun fire, but still a challenging shot to all but the most experienced marksman.
In some cases, the hunters will cast a large treble hook out, in attempts to snag the free-swimming gator. When they succeed, the barbed hooks catch in the animal’s less-protected sides, no doubt causing a great deal of pain and distress. The wildly struggling reptile is slowly dragged to the boat, where it will continue to thrash until the hunters can secure it long enough to point a rifle muzzle between the eyes and send a bullet that only then will end the animal’s pain. If hunters were to use this same method to hunt and capture deer, wild swine, bear, etc., the public outcry would quite resonant. But we’re talking about a cold-blooded reptile, and unfortunately, there is a double standard when it comes to animal welfare. Ironically, it gives one food for thought about the fishing industry as well, since recent studies have shown that fish are capable of feeling pain, too.
As an animal-lover, it is difficult to remain objective with these types of issues. However, as I mentioned earlier, alligator hunting is a primary source of income for many of these hunters. It is a means of providing for their families, and again, it is an established tradition more than a couple hundred years. There’s a culture there that thinks and operates very differently than I do. So I ultimately cannot fault anyone for seeking means to provide for their family in a way that they enjoy.
I suppose that I could be glad that the American Alligator is so successful that it can be hunted in a regulated fashion. After all, it was once proclaimed an endangered species in 1973, but less than 20 years later, it was pronounced as fully recovered in nearly all of its original natural range. Not many animals that end up on that list ever get the privilege of making it off in a positive way, so the alligator is part of an elite club indeed. We can only hope that with good conservation efforts that history will not repeat itself, as this magnificent beast is a keystone species and an apex predator in the environments it inhabits, providing homes for many species with the dens it creates in riverbanks, as well as controlling populations of the prey species on its menu.